Wednesday, November 6

Eating Rats

Several years ago, I spent about a year as the primary food safety instructor for all my employer's units in our region. I was pulling together materials for yet another food safety class when the salmonella- contaminated peanut butter scandal broke.
Not the least bit surprised by the outbreak, I was nonetheless horrified by a casual comment quoted in a national newspaper by an employee of the besieged peanut butter company (who no doubt was quickly quarantined and castigated by the resident PR people when they were alerted to his gaff). He told the journalist, in a somewhat mystified manner, that everyone knows there are rats in the peanuts - but usually the roasting process kills them off.

I couldn't help but think back to that gut-twisting comment when I read that a new study shows that 12% of America's spice imports are contaminated with rodent hair (and by extension, feces).

Researchers suspect that the spices may be responsible for far more salmonella outbreaks that can be proven, in part because food-borne illnesses in general are dramatically under reported (many people attributing their gastric upsets to the flu, or just shrugging it off as part of life and never following up with reporting or the testing necessary for health departments to document the case), and in part because people rarely report spice usage when recounting their diet during research for an outbreak. Think about it - you would report that you had pizza or chicken, perhaps, without ever thinking that the basil or oregano you topped those meals off with could be the cause of your illness.

Do I think that this news is something to panic over? No. Realistically speaking, we consume spices in such small quantities that their potential for negative health consequences is a very small threat compared to many of the other food-system atrocities we also currently face. Furthermore, from a strictly practical standpoint, there are many spices that cannot be reliably grown in the U.S., and the production/distribution chains for them are impossibly difficult to trace, regulate and hold accountable. That kind of time and effort is simply not practical when there are so many bigger, more serious issues to address.

This news does, however, renew my determination to grow as many of my own herbs as I can next summer and to supplement my stock wherever possible with locally-grown options. There's nothing I can do about the cinnamon I buy, except to purchase from reliable (preferably organic) companies and trust that they are doing all they can to ensure quality. But so many every-day spices from oregano and basil to thyme and red pepper flakes are cheap and easy to make myself - as long as I plan ahead. So as we head toward winter and begin planning for next year's gardens, will you consider joining me in going a few herbs of your own? Every step, no matter how small, towards healthy diets and food independence is powerful and so, so worthwhile!

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